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Day 17/06/2014

Cultivating Optimism & Hope to Enhance Well-Being, Performance & Positive Emotions About the Future …*

Cultivating Optimism & Hope to Enhance Well-Being, Performance & Positive Emotions About the Future ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman

Today, we’ll examine how to increase one’s positive emotions about the future by learning how to cultivate our capacity for optimism and hope. As you’ve seen in my previous posts on the theory of positive emotions, and increasing satisfaction about the past, the various shades of happiness we experience over the course of our lives have very important effects on both mental and physical health. This holds true for optimism and hope:

Pessimists, I have found over the last two decades, are up to eight times more likely to become depressed when bad events happen; they do worse at school; sports, and most jobs than their talents augur; they have worse physical health and shorter lives; they have rockier interpersonal relations, and they lose American Presidential elections to their more optimistic opponents. (24)

While some people seem naturally more inclined to view the glass half-full than half-empty, the muscle analogy that pervades most of behavioral psychology also applies in the domain of optimism and hope. Both of these capacities function much like physical muscles which, when exercised correctly grow and develop. So don’t despair if you tend to be pessimistic, with a little work, you can learn to become more optimistic and hopeful and reap the many benefits of these positive frames.

Optimism and hope are quite well-understood, they have been the objects of thousands of empirical studies, and best of all, they can be built. Optimism and hope cause better resistance to depression when bad events strike, better performance at work, particularly in challenging jobs, and better physical health. (83)

TWO BASIC DIMENSIONS OF OPTIMISM: PERMANENCE & PERVASIVENESS

As we saw last week, the narratives we construct about our lives have enormous implications on our happiness and well-being, both mental and physical and one of the most powerful ways to increase well-being is to rework our beliefs about what happens to us and take charge of creating a more productive narrative. Pessimism and optimism are also tightly linked to the explanatory styles we use to frame the experiences in our lives and are defined by two basic dimensions: permanence and pervasiveness. Whether you view events and moods as permanent or temporary and universal or specific has great implications for your happiness and well-being.

Optimistic people tend to explain the bad events they experience as both temporary and specific to this one event. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to view the misfortunes that befall them as universal and permanent.

Pessimists have a particularly pernicious way of construing their setbacks and frustrations. They automatically think that the cause is permanent, pervasive and personal: “It’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine everything, and it’s my fault.” […] Optimists, in contrast, have a strength that allows them to interpret their setbacks as surmountable, particular to a single problem, and resulting from temporary circumstances or other people. (24)

Interestingly, the pattern is reversed when appraising good events: optimists view their good fortune as permanent, pervasive and personal while pessimists see it as temporary, specific to that one event and the result of luck rather than personal intervention.

CULTIVATING HOPE

Similarly to optimism, hope results from our explanatory style when appraising the events of our lives:

Finding permanent and universal causes for good events along with temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope; finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune and temporary and specific causes of good events is the practice of despair. (92)

INTERVENTIONS FOR INCREASING OPTIMISM & HOPE

So, concretely, what can you do to increase hope and optimism in your life? Much like enhancing satisfaction about the past, increasing hope and optimism is about reframing how you explain your life to yourself. The first step to building optimism and hope is “to realize your beliefs are just that—beliefs. They may or may not be facts.” (94) When negative thoughts creep up, you need to recognize them, learn to dispute your internal monologue and replace the negative thoughts with more productive beliefs. In Authentic Happiness, Seligman proposes the “ABCDE Model” as a helpful framework through which to recraft your beliefs:

  • A stands for adversity
  • B stands for the beliefs you automatically have when it occurs
  • C stands for the usual consequences of the belief
  • D stands for your disputation of your routine belief
  • E stands for the energization that occurs when you dispute it successfully

By effectively disputing the beliefs that follow an adversity, you can change your reaction from dejection and giving up to activity and good cheer. (93)

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman shares four techniques for making your disputations convincing and thus translating this mental act into tangible benefits: evidence, alternatives, implications and usefulness.

{ EVIDENCE }

The most convincing way of disputing a negative belief is to show that it is factually incorrect. Much of the time you have facts on your side, since pessimistic reactions to adversity are so very often overreactions. You adopt the role of a detective and ask, “What is the evidence for this belief?” (95)

{ ALTERNATIVES }

Almost nothing that happens to you has just one cause; most events have many causes. If you did poorly on a test, all of the following might have contributed: how hard the test was, how much you studied, how smart you are, how fair the professor is, how the other students did, and how tired you were. Pessimists have a way of latching onto the worst of all these causes—the most permanent and pervasive one. Here again, disputation usually has reality on its side. There are multiple causes, so why latch onto the most insidious one? Ask yourself, is there any less destructive way to look at this?

To dispute your own beliefs, scan for all possible contributing causes. Focus on those that are changeable (not enough time spent studying,) specific (this particular exam was uncharacteristically hard), and non-personal (the professor graded unfairly). You may have to push hard at generating alternative beliefs, latching onto possibilities that you are not fully convinced are true. Remember that much of pessimistic thinking consists of just the reverse, latching onto the most dire possible belief—not because of evidence, but precisely because it is so dire. It is your job to undo this destructive habit by becoming facile at generating alternatives. (96)

{ IMPLICATIONS }

Reality may be against you, and the negative belief you hold about yourself may be true. In this situation, the technique to use is decatastrophizing.

Even if the belief is true, you say to yourself, what are its implications? It was true that the dinner was not romantic. But what does that imply? One bad dinner does not mean divorce.

How likely, you should ask yourself, is the worst-case scenario?  (97)

{ USEFULNESS }

Sometimes the consequences of holding a belief matter more than its truth. Is the belief destructive? When you break your diet, the response “I’m a total glutton” is a recipe for letting go of your diet completely. Some people get very upset when the world shows itself not to be fair. We can sympathize with that sentiment, but the belief itself may cause more grief than it is worth. What good will it do me to dwell on the belief that the worlds should be fair? Another tactic is to detail all the ways you can change the situation in the future. Even if the belief is true now, is the situation changeable? How can you go about changing it? (97)

To practice disputing your pessimistic beliefs and reframe your explanatory style, Seligman suggests the following exercise:

During the next five adverse events you face in your daily life, listen closely for your beliefs, observe the consequences, and dispute your beliefs vigorously. Then observe the energy that occurs as you succeed in dealing with the negative beliefs. Record all of this. These five adverse events can be minor: the mail is late, your call isn’t returned, or the kid pumping your gas doesn’t wash the windshield. In each of these use the four techniques of self-disputation. (98)

Do it in your daily life over the next week. Don’t search out adversity, but as it comes along, tune in carefully to your internal dialogue. When you hear the negative beliefs, dispute them. Beat them into the ground, then record the ABCDE.

  • Adversity:
  • Belief:
  • Consequences:
  • Disputation:
  • Energization:

(100)

Hope this review of hope and optimism was helpful. Thursday we’ll take a look at the various types of happiness in the present.

*

Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

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